By Chris Stephen
A fierce battle for control of Libya’s oil ports is raging this weekend as worried American officials claim that Russia is trying to “do a Syria” in the country, supporting the eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar in an attempt to control its main source of wealth.
The fighting between Haftar’s forces and militias from western Libya is focused on Sidra, Libya’s biggest oil port, and nearby Ras Lanuf, its key refinery. Together they form the gateway to the vast Oil Crescent, a series of oilfields stretching hundreds of miles through the Sahara containing Africa’s largest reserves.
Haftar’s forces have launched airstrikes against militias around the oil ports themselves, with social media showing pictures of corpses and burning vehicles. No casualty figures have yet been released.
Capturing the glittering prize of the Oil Crescent has become the focus of a bitter civil war now in its third year and US officials fear that Russia has now entered the conflict, with Haftar the likely beneficiary.
In testimony to the Senate’s foreign relations committee on Thursday, the chief of the Pentagon’s Africa command, General Thomas D Waldhauser, said: “Russia is trying to exert influence on the ultimate decision of who and what entity becomes in charge of the government inside Libya.”
Asked by Senator Lindsey Graham whether Russia was “trying to do in Libya what they are doing in Syria”, Waldhauser said: “Yes, that’s a good way to characterise it.”
Waldhauser’s complaint was bolstered on Friday when Reuters broke the news that armed Russian “security contractors” have been on the ground in eastern Libya, officially to help Haftar’s forces in mine clearance operations. Western diplomats say there are striking parallels with Russia’s decisive intervention in the Syrian conflict.
For five years the US and other western powers worked to unite Syria’s disparate rebel factions, combat Islamic State and broker a peace deal with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Prospects of such a deal have all but evaporated after Russian air power crushed rebels in their stronghold of Aleppo.
Bolstered by success in Syria, Moscow is turning to Libya and to Haftar. In January, Moscow invited him for a full-dress parade aboard its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov cruising off the Libyan coast.
The 73-year-old general has had a chequered career, once backing Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi and later leading a US-funded force opposing him, and finally emerging as a rebel commander in the Nato-backed Arab spring revolution in which the dictator was toppled and killed.
Since the revolution, Libya has been engulfed in chaos, moving to full-scale civil war in the summer of 2014 when Libya Dawn, a coalition of Islamist and Misratan militias, captured Tripoli.
Tribal forces opposing Libya Dawn have coalesced in eastern Libya around Haftar’s Libyan National Army, supporting the national parliament in Tobruk.
A Government of National Accord was installed in Tripoli by the UN last year, but that government has failed to win backing from Haftar, or even control of the capital, which remains in the hands of militias now fighting each other in sporadic street battles.
For all sides, the struggle for oil is the one constant. “Oil is Libya’s lifeblood,” says Jonathan Winer, the US’s former Libya envoy. “Economically it doesn’t matter who is pumping it, but politically it does.”
Last September, Haftar’s eastern army captured the oil ports in a lightning offensive, giving Tobruk control of the Oil Crescent. The town’s lawmakers promoted him to field marshal. Then, earlier this month, Islamist militias snatched them back, and handed them over to the control of the Tripoli government.
Haftar’s forces beat a chaotic retreat but have since regrouped and are waging a counter-offensive backed by airstrikes.
In a fragmented, chaotic political landscape, western powers back Tripoli but some also back Haftar, with France having supplied special forces to aid his battle with Islamists. Russia officially recognises Tobruk, not Tripoli, as the legitimate government, printing Tobruk’s banknotes even as a British firm prints Tripoli’s currency.
Moscow’s most dramatic intervention came in late February when Russia’s state oil giant Rosneft announced a massive production and exploration deal with Libya’s National Oil Corporation, its arrival in Libya coming after the western oil giants, put off by the violence, pulled out.
With Rosneft also signing deals in Egypt and Iraq, Moscow appears to be signalling a greater footprint in the Middle East. “The Rosneft deal means something very specific politically,” says financial analyst Jalel Harchaoui. “Russia has been increasingly active, vocal and visible as far as its preference as to what type of governance should prevail in Libya.”
Russia insists that, like western powers, it wants a united Libya, inviting the leader of the Tripoli government, Fayez Serraj, to Moscow for talks last month, while its foreign ministry has said that it supports “a united, sovereign and independent state”.
Yet that solution will mean finding a way to accommodate Haftar in a united government, which would be fiercely resisted by Tripoli militias. “That’s the crucial question,” Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson declared last month. “How to make sure that Haftar is in some way integrated into the government of Libya.”
Without unity, many fear Libya is heading for break-up, or continuing chaos. For Europe, that chaos has become acute, with Libya already a funnel for migrant smugglers. Migrant arrivals in Italy from Libya are projected this year to surpass last year’s 180,000 people, which was itself a record.
And while Islamic State lost its main Libyan base in fighting, supported by US airstrikes, in December, there are fears that continuing chaos will allow it to re-establish itself.
Haftar has been spurned by most western diplomats, but last week he met the Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng at his eastern Libyan headquarters. “What Haftar wants to do is win militarily, so there has to be a political solution, this is what Boris [Johnson] was saying,” Kwarteng told the Observer. “Russia is opportunistic. If they see that we are doing nothing, they will intervene. Nature abhors a vacuum.”
Meanwhile, some fear the oil port battle has become a zero-sum game, with oil production already falling and Libyans barely kept alive by fast-diminishing foreign reserves.
“Low oil production, prices and exports have resulted in a fiscal deficit,” reported the International Crisis Group, a thinktank. “At this rate, Libya could be bankrupt by the end of 2017.”
Chris Stephen – Libya + Tunisia Correspondent, The Guardian. Author, Judgement Day: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic (Atlantic Monthly Press)